Wait! Don't chuck it out! Best Before doesn't mean what you think

What expiration dates really mean - and how to benefit from understanding them

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What Expiration Dates Really Mean
The dates that manufacturers put on food can be terribly confusing. All you want to know is whether the milk in your fridge is safe to drink, and you have to navigate a baffling array of dates from 'sell by' to 'best before' and 'use by'. The good news is that there are some simple rules you can follow which will help keep you safe - and some lesser-known facts about these dates that could help you cut your shopping bill by two thirds.

'Sell by'

This date isn't actually for you. The manufacturers put this on the packaging to tell the store the last day it should be sold. However, they will have factored some time for it to sit in your cupboard and fridge, so shouldn't be taken to mean it has to be ditched after the date has passed.

This is why it's always worth checking the shelves in the supermarket where food that has reached its 'sell by' date is dramatically reduced.

'Best before'

The manufacturer will print this on the packaging to show the last date it can guarantee it will be at its best. However, it doesn't mean the food will be dangerous to eat after this date. It doesn't even mean that the food will be past its best, because the manufacturers will err on the side of caution, so don't automatically throw things away when they hit this date.

Use by

This is the date relating to safety - which will usually feature on fresh meat or chilled items. The indication is that it should be used by this date, as after that point its safety cannot be guaranteed, and it should be thrown away. Don't be tempted just to taste it to see, because it doesn't take much to give you food poisoning.

Of course, common sense should play its part too. Items that smell funny, have discoloured, spoiled or gone mouldy, are usually best to pop in the food recycling bin. The bag of crisps that's a couple of days past its 'best before' date, on the other hand, may well be perfectly good to eat.

Benefit from understanding

Once you have mastered what the different dates mean, you can actually take advantage of other's people's distrust of them. Across the UK - and online - a number of stores have been established that specialise in selling items that are either very close to their best before date - or have gone past them. These are often sold at huge discounts, and one chain of shops - Bargain Brand Food Outlet - sells most items for 25p.

When we looked into the phenomenon last year, store owners and their customers said these shops were attracting people from all income brackets - from those on severely restricted budgets using them as a way to feed the family, to those in higher income brackets who wanted to take advantage of bargains.

In our experiment, we purchased food at a third of the price of the equivalent in a supermarket, and on testing them, the texture and flavour had not been impaired.

But what do you think? Do you have confidence in your mastery of supermarket dates? And are you ready to take advantage of it? Let us know in the comments.

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